Final Reflections and Goodbyes

This is it, guys.

Below stand the very last of my Japanese adventures.

Or maybe not very last. That wording is mildly depressing given the current context. How about we go with “the very last of my Japanese adventures for the very near future”. Much better! I must say, though, that after going on this quirky, crazy, cultural thrill ride, I can’t help but feel that my life’s journey has reached at least some sort of end. So, please excuse any excessive emotion as I force my mind (and fingers!) to focus on my writing and NOT the feelings that my subject matter bring about, which generally tend to leave me teetering back and forth between:

1) reminiscing my writing time away and
2) dashing from my desk in search of tissues to compensate my overworked and under-thanked tear-ducts.

Today I think that I will start by recounting my final adventures and goodbyes, but stay tuned for some final reflections on my chemistry research and personal experience at the end of this post.

My last weekend in Japan fully convinced me that I had been elevated to the ranks of the truly blessed: even five days before I left for the U.S., I still found myself meeting new people. My friend Sharen from Brunai had invited about eight of us international students on an excursion to Onomichi for a firework festival, the second largest firework festival in the Hiroshima area of the entire season. There were a bunch of new faces in our group: Motaz from Palestine, Toan from Vietnam, and Jason from Canada,

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all of whom are standing to my left in the above picture, names listed in order of right to left (I’m the girl in the tan skirt in the center!). We arrived in Onomichi at about 2:00 PM, and since nightfall was not scheduled to hit for another five hours, we decided to go on a temple walk to kill some time. Most of the temples were actually closed due to tourists staking out the surrounding area for good spots to watch the firework show later, but that didn’t hinder our enjoyment of the hike at all! In fact, we probably had more fun making jokes about the futility of our efforts than we would have if the temples had been open. There were also plenty of cool sites to explore that were not at all affiliated with the temples

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as well as some magnificent views, so, truly, we had no room to complain.

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Before sitting down to watch the fireworks and enjoy my very last Japanese festival, our group stopped by a small restaurant whose specialty was cold ramen (one of my favorite Japanese dishes) and started to have some really great cultural and religious discussions that continued far into the evening. In retrospect, conversations like that, filled with such diversity of experience and thought, are what I miss the most about my stay in Japan.

I was able to sleep in Sunday morning and prepare for the potentially emotionally trying event of the coming evening: my official farewell party from the international students. Per my request, we decided to head out to an authentic Chinese restaurant, a forty-five minute walk from the International House (and if any of my international friends are reading this, I sincerely apologize for that exceedingly long walk. Ha! I swear I thought it was only going to take twenty minutes). Once we were seated, our numbers continued to increase and, soon, we had a severely packed table. I was incredibly pleased (not to mention touched!) that so many people would come to see me off even though it was the Sunday night before finals week. If only the waiting staff had been nearly as pleased…

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I also received some extremely cool going away gifts, including an authentic Mozambican bag from Watanabe (my Japanese friend who lived in Mozambique for two years), a bell adorned with the maple leaves local to Miyajima from Afreen, and a Japanese sun hat and baseball souvenir from Motaz. Afterwards, a smaller group of us decided to go out for ice cream,
and I learned that although the word parfait is French indeed, the French know of no such ice cream snack. Yet another fun fact from Fanny! Gah I miss those fun facts…

…but no! No reminiscing! I shall push onward with my story!

Monday night, after my second-to-last day of work, the lab threw me their own going away party,

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and how could a party with the above group of people not be fun? The majority of the evening consisted of all of us cooking dinner together. We made takoyaki,

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liver snacks,

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and a regional dish that tastes very similar to okonomiyaki but is folded over like an omelet.

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We spent the rest of the evening talking about the differences between America and Japan, and despite the fact that my eyelids were visibly drooping by the end of the evening, it took all my effort to tear myself away from the party.

Although the lab had technically already said goodbye to me the night before, I arrived at work early Tuesday morning, eager to check the NMR spectra of the experiment I had performed the previous day. This experiment involved a rather desperate attempt to react that same thioxanthone derivative I previously mentioned, this time with trifluoromethanesulfonic anhydride and lithium chloride. I was rather skeptical of the reaction to begin with (probably because I was the one to offer up the mechanism!), and, lo and behold, it didn’t work. However, the NMR spectra showed that I had been left with starting material while all of the articles I had read indicated that, if the reaction I was attempting didn’t work at all, I would be left with a dimer, not starting material. So, my theory is that both the previous reaction with oxalyl chloride and the current one proceeded, but that the product was so unstable that it decomposed almost immediately. If only I had had a little longer to work with it. . . but, hey, I have three more years of undergraduate research ahead of me, so hopefully I’ll get to work with at least one molecule until completion!

Because my lab group was so awesome, leaving the lab discouraged was completely out of the question. Inagaki-san gave me an incredibly inspiring talk about how the life of a chemist is wrought with failures and a group of my closest friends from the lab presented me with a scrapbook of the time I had spent there.

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I was stunned by their thoughtfulness, and as I read the comments and looked at the pictures, filled with inside jokes and inspirational little tidbits, I almost lost it. The fact that I was supposed to immediately depart from the lab and head over for a final, FINAL goodbye party at the International House did nothing to ease my overtly emotional state. Not to be outdone by my Japanese friends, Fanny and Vivian decided to cook dishes from their respective countries (France and Colombia) to enjoy at our final gathering, ratatouille and masitas.

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We talked and laughed for hours, accompanied by good music and good food, and as we began breaching the subject of the Apollo missions (still not quite sure how we got onto that topic), I suddenly looked up at the clock only to realize that it was 2:00 in the morning. But, hey, I was flying halfway across the globe the next morning, so staying up late could only help my jet-lag, right? Heh. The next fifteen minutes were filled with hugs, making for an especially tearful goodbye.

Wednesday morning, some friends from the lab picked me up to take me to the airport, stopping first, however, to indulge me in one last ramen meal.

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And then it was time to say my final goodbye, my goodbye to Japan,

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and I was left to reflect on my time there as my twenty-one hours of travel began.

So, let’s have them, some reflections on my chemistry research and experience!

Wow. Even just looking back at all of the chemistry-related things I learned during my eight week internship is slightly overwhelming. First, there is the plethora of simple things. I’ve become comfortable handling reagents ranging from the highly reactive to the menacingly toxic. I’ve developed the strength and patience to add reagents like butylated lithium from a handheld syringe at a dropwise pace over what once seemed to me brutal periods of time. I’ve learned how to handle what I would have previously thought to be complex procedures with ease, moving things in and out of the glove box and filtering them under argon without much difficulty. My chromatography columns, which used to resemble crooked, bubbly disasters of silica gel, sample, and eluent, now run evenly, and separate compounds efficiently and well. I no longer unknowingly waste large amounts of product during extractions and continue to make wiser and wiser decisions when it comes to not losing my product in unnecessary steps. In short, my organic lab skills have improved enormously and I am continuing to make better and better judgment calls when it comes to dealing with unexpected or difficult-to-handle results.

I am excited to say that this newly held, practical laboratory knowledge is accompanied by some new chemistry knowledge as well. Because my focus in Japan was solely carbene chemistry, I have learned a whole lot about carbenes from both my post-doctoral mentors and some classic scientific literature on carbenes from researchers like Tomioka, the “persistent triplet carbenes” guy, and Iwamura, the “high-spin polycarbenes” guy. One of my proudest moments was my last Friday afternoon presentation, one that I gave to an associate professor and my lab peers, in which I was asked why I was hesitant to use a particular reagent to form my cationic product, and in response cited the 1981 paper Dication Ether Salts from the Reaction of Trifluoromethanesulfonic Anhydride with Activated Ketones, just as familiar with its results as I was with the examples presented in my basic organic textbook. My Organic I professor would be proud!

My personal growth was probably even more extreme. Being put into situations in which I had to fend for myself was rather exhilarating, especially the times in which my meager understanding of the Japanese language proved useful to myself and to my friends. For instance, one time my Austrian friend Beppino was wanting to buy an iPad from the local Apple store in Saijo, but the saleslady only spoke Japanese. Somehow, with only the Japanese I had picked up from lab and some online classes I had been frequenting, I was able to clearly pick out that the iPads were not currently available and wouldn’t be in for awhile. The shocked expression on Beppino’s face when he realized that I had just translated for him was priceless.

Another huge lesson I learned was how not to panic when faced with difficult situations. A large portion of this “lesson” was learned over time in the lab, but I will never forget how I got to experience firsthand the choice “to panic or not to panic” when forced to bike through Kyoto, the city with the highest rate of bicycle accidents in all of Japan, after having not biked for about six years. A lot of close calls were made over that three day trip in Kyoto, but the near accidents that seemed discouraging at the time, I am thankful for now. Every time I almost ran into a pole or nicked the heel of businessman due to lack of control of my vehicle, I began to realize that I was faced with a choice: to panic right before that point of impact or to think clearly and, instead of letting anxiety wash over me because of the embarrassment and shame to come when I failed, focus on doing whatever I could to salvage the situation. If I claim to live by faith, claim that the God of the universe has taken my shame upon himself that I might live in joy and by grace as I slowly move towards that perfect connection with Himself, others, and nature that I was created to experience, then I can’t allow panic or anxiety to distract my focus from experiencing by way of discipline all that has been so freely given to me.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I will never forget the people I met in Japan, all of you guys from Japan, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunai, Paraguay, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Honduras, Italy, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Siberia, France, Russia, Turkey, Mozambique, Palestine, Rwanda, and beyond. And as for Professor Yamamoto and his laboratory…just wow. You guys taught me so much and did so much for me that I don’t think that I will ever be able to properly thank you. Each and every one of you have personally affected me in ways deeper than you may ever realize and I am delighted to call you friend.

Sayonara, Nihon. It’s been grand.

The Climax: Kyoto, Osaka, Onomichi, Oh My!

Completely disregarding my self-given advice of the last post to take care and rest myself between periods of work and gallivanting across the country, I found myself blissfully exhausted the last two weeks of my stay in Japan. This perpetual state of exhaustion, however, completely sucked the creativity right out of my blog writing, so I decided to wait until a period of rest presented itself before attempting to write again. Now, jet-lagged and safely returned to American soil, I am spending my second morning back home recounting as much as I can about my stay in Japan before the unique perspective that living in the country provided me fades into background noise as I re-acclimate to the United States.

So, let’s rewind to Thursday evening, July 11 – the international students’ weekly French Day! Continuing in the spirit of the previous French-Day-turned-America-Day, French Day had yet again temporarily morphed into movie night, this week’s selection being The Last King of Scotland. And, oh my, what a movie that was! If there has ever been a film perfectly depicting the devastation brought about by overconfident Westerners wielding their half-hearted morality in an attempt to find adventure and fulfillment for themselves by “reforming” a culture that they don’t understand in the least, this film is it. Yet again, it was a very appropriate movie and good reminder for us Westerners temporarily living in an Eastern country.

Earlier that Thursday at work, I had been informed by Inagaki-san that Friday and Saturday would be spent cleaning the lab, which meant that I would probably be more in the way than of help. Because the following Monday was a national holiday (Ocean’s Day!), this meant that I would have a four day weekend. After having spent the last four days repeating the same experiment (attempting to react a thioxanthone derivative with oxalyl chloride) four different times under slightly different conditions, I was a little frustrated by my failure to make my reaction proceed and hoping that a change of location would give me some inspiration. So, with that in mind, I made plans to take a day bus on Friday to go visit my friend Myranda who lives in Kyoto and is studying Japanese. We were going to explore both Kyoto and Osaka!

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Friday night after my arrival was a blast. We ate at an Indian curry restaurant (which from what I’ve seen are about as prevalent in Japan as Mexican restaurants are in the States), visited an Egyptian hookah bar, and made our way down to the Kamogawa Riverside. Although I had seen this river before during daylight hours on my last visit to Kyoto, the riverside had been nearly completely empty save for a few people walking their dogs. You can imagine how surprised I was, then, to see the riverside now covered with hundreds of people drinking and chatting as they watched performers and listened to bands.

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I was particularly impressed by one jazz band that featured a saxophone, jazz flute, bass, and other super cool instruments. They were great to listen to as we chatted with locals, international students studying at the same university as Myranda, and some travelers from the United Kingdom.

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The next morning, I donned some of my newly bought Japanese clothes, and Myranda and I headed out to Osaka! Every city I have visited in Japan has had its own unique character, but Osaka was practically bursting at the seams with personality, what with its kansai dialect, backwards escalator etiquette, and the crazy busy takoyaki, or octopus ball, stands. Some of the biggest highlights of the day included Spa World, a six-story theme park centered around bathing,

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the Pokemon store,

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Glico man, who’s been around since the 1920′s,

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some kabuki players in a really cool, touristy part of the city,

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a Lolita shop that sold everything from school girl to maid outfits,

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and the Umeda building, the tallest building in Osaka.

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My favorite part of the day, however, was the festivities that were taking place on the river that flows through Osaka. All day long, boys and men were rowing colorful boats down the river, playing a continuous rhythm on their drums.

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Although I am not quite sure what the meaning behind this festival was, it looked almost as if they were trying to move a river spirit across the water, so we’ll go with that. Another amusing moment occurred as Myranda and I made our way down Osaka’s main shopping street, only to encounter a rather familiar sound.

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It was the same jazz band from the night before in Kyoto!

Although we probably could have stayed in Osaka late into the night, Myranda and I had a train to catch, so after watching evening fall upon the city,

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and taking pictures from above,

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we caught the last train home and fell fast asleep upon stepping foot in Myranda’s room.

The next morning, the two of us made our way to a Japanese Baptist Church that Myranda had been frequenting for the past month. It truly was an experience singing hymns in Japanese that I had heard my entire life sung in English, and I had a lot of fun learning the kanji for words associated with the religion through the hymnbook. You see, most of the hymnbook was written in hiragana, which I can read, with a few, repeating kanji scattered throughout. Since Myranda had verbally taught me the words for “Christ”, “God”, etc. earlier, I was able to match those words with their respective kanji as I heard them. One fact that I found particularly cool is that the kanji for the Christian church, the symbol for teaching matched with the symbol for meeting, is different than the kanji associated with other types of churches. Another thing that amazed me was the Korean man in front of us who was translating the entire sermon into Korean for his family as it was spoken in Japanese; after talking to him afterwards, apparently he can translate equally well into English! Myranda tried her hand at translating into English for me during the sermon, and I must say that I was incredibly impressed, not to mention proud! Because of her, I was really able to get a firm grasp of what was being said.

After a quick Japanese curry lunch, Myranda and I made our way over to one of my favorite stops of the day: Neko (Cat) Cafe! Basically, the whole idea is that you pet cats while sipping tea. Laugh at me if you wish, but I found the experience to be quite relaxing – and occasionally amusing whenever the waitress brought out her laser to play with the cats.

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We didn’t get to play with any kitties, though. Those were twice as expensive.

After our allotted one hour in the cafe, we decided that it was temple time! Our first stop was Kiyomizu-dera, a beautiful temple located on the side of a mountain.

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(Shinto gate on the left; Buddhist gate on the right)

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(And look at that nice view of Kyoto Tower!)

The Shinto part of the temple is dedicated to love (aww!) and has some really interesting traditions that visitors can take part in. For instance, if you can make your way with your eyes closed between the twin pair of rocks found in the walkway,

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true love will be yours! If you miss, though, you are doomed to live a lonely life forever. Pretty content with my love life at that moment, I didn’t feel like risking it and left the rocks alone (ha ha). The Buddhist part of the temple also had some activities to take part in, though, so I made up for my lack of participation on the Shinto side. Kiyomizu actually means “pure water” in Japanese, and it is said that if you drink the water that flows from the side of the mountain, you will be granted one wish! Although most temples have some sort of “do this and you’ll be granted one wish” site, this one looked particularly fun,

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so I gave it a try! However, because I was so focused on trying to maneuver the long-handled cup and do all the hand washing/water drinking in the right order, I managed to both forget to make a wish and leave my watch behind. Looking back, I am now wondering if my bad luck was regressive because on my way down from Kiyomizu-dera to go find some matcha (green tea) ice cream, I kind of half-way tripped on a staircase that promises bad luck if you trip on it. Embarrassing, I know. Luckily, though, we ran into a Studio Ghibli store on our way back, and I got a nice, comforting hug from Totoro.

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We also had the pleasure of stumbling upon a Chigo child ceremony in preparation for Gion Matsuri, a huge festival that began the day after I left Kyoto.

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Because the night bus that was supposed to take me back to Saijo wasn’t scheduled for another four hours, Myranda and I decided to take a look at one more cultural site before we headed back to Kyoto Station:

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Fushini Inari!

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Fushini Inari is supposedly inhabited by kitsune,

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fox gods that love the ladies. It is a HUGE no-no to bring your boyfriend to this temple because the kitsune get rather jealous if they see a pretty girl accompanied by a boy, and if you get caught by one of them, your relationship is basically doomed. However, it is perfectly okay to go with your girlfriends and pray for love because the fox gods have a soft spot for desperate women. To get to the altar, however, you have to climb all the way from here:

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(see the shining, red gate?)

to here:

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(behind that same gate!)

The hike is by no means boring, though, as the way is marked by thousands and thousands of red gates.

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Because companies have started donating gates in recent years, the tunnel truly seems to just go…

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…and go…

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…and occasionally get interrupted by some rather eerie, graveyard-like shrines…

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…and go some more.

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You may actually recognize this location from the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, but unlike that movie implies, this temple is NOT in the middle of Kyoto. In fact, it’s pretty far out, probably one of the most inconvenient to reach in all of Kyoto.

You’ll be happy to hear that I made it back to Kyoto Eki (Station) in time for my night bus and safely arrived at Saijo Eki at 5:55 AM on Monday morning. I planned to meet some friends there at 8:00 to head over to Onomichi for a 60 kilometer, all-day bike tour over the surrounding islands, and because it was a holiday, buses didn’t start running until about 7:45, so I spent my morning hanging around the station, surprisingly well-rested!

Onomichi and the surrounding islands were simply amazing. I especially enjoyed the unique bridges crossing to and from the different islands.

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In all honesty, the area is just pretty in general. I don’t think I got a single bad picture.

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We were a little worried about the weather, though, as the skies seemed rather downcast, so we decided to make this guy,

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Teru Teru Mikan-chan. This literally translates to “Shine Shine Napkin” and is a play off of the traditional name for these dolls, teru teru bozu.

After riding for about 25 kilometers, we realized that we needed to return the bikes in less than two hours. Some of the newer bikers (including me) didn’t think we were up to the challenge of riding all the way back over three islands at a faster pace than the first trek, so we separated into two groups: the ferry group

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and the bike group.

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Because we the ferry people had some extra time on our hands, we decided to explore a random temple that we had passed a bit earlier and were stunned as soon as we stepped inside.

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We had stumbled upon a treasure trove! However, with only about 15 minutes to explore and not wanting to pay the 1200 yen ($12) entrance fee, we spent most of our time perusing some incredibly interesting scenes carved out near the front of the temple.

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There were also some ancient, intricately molded statues.

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Because the temple didn’t seem to be a heavily frequented one, there weren’t any plaques explaining what exactly the carvings and statues were, which would have been super interesting to learn about. Truly, though, I don’t have any room to complain: the weekend wasn’t anything short of amazing, basically the climax to my Japanese adventure, and the excitement helped me brace myself for the bitterweet goodbyes to come…

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Baseball, Shopping, and a Quiet Weekend

Knowing that I would be in Japan for only a short period of time, when I first arrived on this wonderful island I created a foolproof plan to spend my weekdays hard at work in the lab and to leave my weekends open for travel across the country. However, I left one very important factor out of my calculations: exhaustion. So, rather than galavanting across the country this past weekend, I spent my time enjoying the simpler pleasures of life – sports, friends, fashion, and meditation. And although these endeavors didn’t exactly lead to a bunch of spectacular photos that I will be able to cherish for the rest of my life or anything like that, I enjoyed myself immensely and learned a lot about myself and the world around me, which is really all that matters in the end anyway, right?

Hmm…so one of the best surprises out of the many pleasant surprises this weekend offered was the chance to celebrate Independence Day in a foreign country! Normally on Thursday evenings my friend Fanny invites all the international students to get together for what she calls “French Day”, because apparently in France it’s very common to have parties on Thursday nights, kind of like the Thursday-night swap parties in America for fraternities and sororities. When I informed her that that particular Thursday was the United State’s Independence Day, however, she quickly canceled that week’s “French Day” in favor of “America Day”, and although nothing really different occurred (except for when we almost made an attempt to run through the rain to go buy some French fries to be more “American”), it was the thought that counted! Let’s just pretend that Fanny was remembering France’s assistance to America during the Revolutionary War, hence the sacrifice of her precious “French Day”…or something like that. And no, we didn’t have a cookout or set off any fireworks, but we did end up watching Lost in Translation, a movie about some Americans in Japan, so that turned out to be quite fitting. The movie itself cracked everyone up because all of us had, by that point in our trip, already personally experienced a lot of the craziness we were seeing unfold on the screen. The only difference is that while I have grown to love all the little quirks that make Japan what it is, the movie struck me as a wee bit negative – but still good!

On Friday night, I got to go to my first ever baseball game, Hiroshima versus Osaka.

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I can’t say that I’m much of a sports fan, but I really enjoyed the game, mostly due to the crowd spirit. I particularly liked how, whenever someone from our team was up to bat, we would bang our little miniature bats together in a rhythm and chant the batter’s name, getting louder and louder. Although football games are crazy fun, you really don’t get the chance to scream for one player in particular, just the team in general, so that was a new experience for me! Because I am completely ignorant about American baseball, I am now curious as to whether we chant throughout the whole game as well. If anyone would be willing to enlighten me (hint hint), I’d be very appreciative.

I am happy to say, though, that for the most part, I was able to identify which elements of the game were native to Japan – like the over-the-top anime cartoons that would shoot across the screen whenever the other team struck out or…um…did something else bad (ha ha I seriously know nothing about baseball!). The very best part of the game was the seventh inning because we got to see this little critter go nuts:

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We also got to blow up some really big red balloons

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which we waved around in the air as we sang some Japanese fight-song type thing

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before letting them fly around the stadium!

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YAAAAAYYYYY! GO HIROSHIMA!!!!

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Saturday was the highlight of the weekend for me, though, because I got to go SHOPPING! Two of the Japanese girls in my lab, Aki and Kaoko, had agreed to go with me for a girls’ day in Hiroshima and we had an absolute blast. I must admit that although I love, love, love shopping for clothes, especially for fancy, interesting clothes that you can only wear for special occasions, I rarely ever do that type of shopping back home in favor of buying jeans that go with everything and cute tops to go with those jeans. However, it hit me Saturday morning that I was in Japan, the country where girls wear high heels, frilly skirts, and high-fashion-looking, collared tops to go work in the chemistry lab, so I deserved to splurge.

And splurge I did.

To help control my fashion lust, I started off by buying a pair of pants with a really exquisite floral pattern on them (quite popular here, actually!) and built the rest of my little fashion collection off of the colors in those pants, so although I bought something from almost every store I went into, everything is mix-and-match, and therefore practical…right? Ahhhh even if my new clothes aren’t practical, I had way too much fun to feel guilty about it now.

Lunch was also super nice. We found a chic little cafe in an old building and ended up eating, chatting, and drinking coffee for over an hour.

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When we decided to head back to Saijo, however, we realized that another baseball game had been going on in the city that day. Not wanting to have to ride forty minutes home on an overly crowded train, we decided to stay in the city a little longer and go to an arcade that’s really popular for high schoolers in the area. So, in the spirit of “girls’ day”, we put our ages aside and headed straight for the photo-booth.

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Oh my.

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Sunday was a much needed day of rest. Also, being in Japan and having heard lots of stories about monks meditating in caves in the mountains for hundreds of days at a time, I was curious to see how long I could meditate without getting distracted, so I took on the challenge. All in all, I ended up meditating for four different rounds (success!), but I had to take breaks in between. The meditations each consisted of reading my Bible and other philosophical works for a forty-five minute period and then going for a thirty minute walk/run to process what I had just read.

I found my breaks just as enjoyable as my meditations. On one such break, I took a walk to YouMeTown (a big chain store here) to go get some food when I saw that they were having a huge manga sale. Since most of the anime/manga that I’ve seen/read is a few years old, I was sure that they would be included in the sale, so I went hunting for them. Luckily, I found almost everything that I was looking for and am now the proud owner of Japanese copies of my favorite stories! Some of the plot summaries were actually written on the backs of the manga in English, and I definitely found some gems among those. An example:

“How do you think can real-life man become a fictitious man? The answer is simple. One has to eliminate everyone who knows hims, everyone who knows his past. One simply must be the only one who exists. A man actually attempted to do this. He tried to commit the ‘perfect suicide’. But he failed to wipe out everything. Now he, the ‘nameless monster,’ has turned into an actually existing man.”

This is a plot summary. And not to a 300 page philosophical dissertation. To a comic book.

I love Japan.

And speaking of manga, I have one more story to share from my Monday evening! I was sitting in the library, contemplating how the rest of my time here was going to be very hot due to the recent change from the rainy season to summer, when an acquaintance of mine that I had met at the yukata festival the previous week, Max from China, came up to me and asked what I was up to. Neither of us being that busy, Max invited me to go with him to a burger shop located right behind YouMeTown named Buddy’s. When we walked in I saw that, yes, we had walked into what was obviously a burger shop, but there were also all sorts of manga covering the walls. I asked if the place served a dual purpose as a library or bookstore, but Max just laughed. Apparently, it’s very common to have restaurants where you buy your food and drink and then pick a manga to read while you enjoy your food. I was suddenly brought back to memories as a kid where I would sit in Barnes and Noble and read for hours without buying any of the books, so it greatly cheers me to know that there are actually places in the world made for that purpose.

Although originally from China, Max has lived in Japan for eight years and is therefore very familiar with the language and culture, so I found his observations over dinner, comparing Japanese culture to other cultures around the world, to be particularly interesting. One example he gave is that when you ask an American or European what they’re studying in school, you ask, “What are you majoring in?” In Japan, that same question is phrased differently, “What faculty are you a part of?” On the surface, these two questions are asking for the same bit of information, but underneath they are quite different. When you ask a Westerner their major, you are asking for the subject that they have chosen to study. When you ask a Japanese person what faculty they are a part of, you are asking what subject they belong to. If other pieces of conversation are dissected, this sense of belonging can be seen in them as well. For instance, when a Japanese person tells you that something is strange, it’s almost implied that this “strange” thing is anti-Japanese, or doesn’t belong in Japan. In America, though, when I call something “weird”, I am saying that the “weird” thing is anti-me, not belonging to my hemisphere, not that the “weird” thing is anti-American. As with all new ways to categorize people and their thought processes, I am a little skeptical and can’t help but feel that, deep down, all people are basically the same – we just all see the world a little bit differently on the outside. However, I can vouch for the fact that this difference in speech patterns exists, so I’ll probably contemplate the matter a little more!

And now for a bittersweet thought: as of today I only have two more weeks left in Japan! Technically, that still means that a fourth of my trip is ahead of me (which is a pretty large fraction!), but it still feels strange to know that all of the lessons that I have learned through this unique lab placement in this unique country about patience, panic, intimacy, pride – they are all about to come to an end! Or at least an end as I know them. One thing that I have promised myself is that when I get back to America, I want to look at it the way that I look at Japan, finding hidden jewels in my everyday life and searching for meaning in even the simplest of interactions. I am growing so quickly here, personally, spiritually, and academically, that I barely know what to do with myself, but it’s a blissful feeling nonetheless. If I could sustain this pace of growth back in the states…wow. Who knows what could happen?

Miyajima, Yukatas (again!), and Daily Life

Many of you are probably wondering – what is it that I actually do in Japan on a daily basis? If so, then lucky you because you are about to gain access to the goings on of my super cool and interesting work life.

Ha ha. But really though, I do have a pretty cool job.

Every morning, sometime between 7:15 and 8:15, I leave the Ikenoue dormitory and begin my five minute hike to work. Even if the night before was late or stressful, this walk always manages to perk me up. The weather and scenery are just so perfect! Despite the fact that it’s the rainy season, I haven’t actually been caught in a big storm yet. Most of the time the air is just incredibly humid, feeling wonderfully cool and refreshing, and when the sun does come out from behind the canopy of clouds it is always a welcome surprise, feeling warm and welcoming on my skin. No matter what the weather, the mountains around campus never cease to look lush and majestic.

Work technically doesn’t start until 9:00 for me, and since I don’t have internet access in my dorm, I use the extra time in the morning to check e-mails, check Facebook, Skype, upload pictures, or work on my blog. When 9:00 finally hits, I move from the break room to my office space in lab #309 and look over the plan I made the evening before specifying what I need to do that day. Normally, this includes either starting a reaction, purifying a product, or analyzing a “clean” product. I am proud to say that, after only a single semester of organic chemistry and single semester of analytical chemistry, I am able to do most of the work by myself! That is, of course, unless I am working with something that could be hazardous if handled incorrectly. In that case Inagaki-san, a post doc whose carbene chemistry research is pretty similar to mine, either shows me how to handle the chemical or supervises me as I handle it myself.

I really love my work environment. This is the first time that I have had my own project in a research setting, and I am really enjoying the autonomy and freedom to be creative. However, I am also well aware that I have much less experience than everyone else in the lab, so I ask Inagaki-san plenty of questions and never do anything too creative without asking his opinion. Luckily for me, Inagaki-san explains things extremely thoroughly. When I first asked him about the significance of the research I was doing, he went into an hour long lecture about the differences between singlet and triplet carbenes, using plenty of MO theory, and talked about why and how even subtle changes in the heteroatoms and substituents of a carbene can change which state is lowest energy, singlet or triplet. From there, he went on to talk about HOMO/LUMO gaps and the effects of all the above factors on the geometry of the carbene. And to think we couldn’t understand each other’s English at first!

When I am not starting a reaction, performing an extraction, running a column, doing a distillation, recrystallizing, reading an NMR, studying publications and scientific texts, writing a report, or picking Inagaki-san’s brain for information, I am normally either praying that my reaction works and that I don’t have to do the same one again (which, sadly, happens less often than you would think) or taking care of my own education and working through some courses on iTunes U. Quantum Mechanics and Fourier Series are my two favorites right now, but I have a few that I switch back and forth between when I get frustrated with my research. When my brain starts hurting from those, I can normally find enough motivation to get back to work.

I break at 11:30 for lunch with the three other carbene chemists (who all happen to be post-docs and therefore don’t have classes) and sometimes the professor, and that’s when I get to eat yummy Japanese food. I normally break again at 3:00 to go get a banana smoothie or coffee with some of the international students. Each break only lasts about thirty minutes. Finally, although my day typically ends at 6:00 PM (unless it’s a Tuesday evening and it’s my turn to report on my research during seminar), many of the other researchers stay late into the night, sometimes even midnight and beyond. Because I don’t have classes during the day like many of them do, I can get the same amount of work done without having to work so late. However, even though I don’t partake in late night research myself, I must say that I am incredibly impressed by the work ethic such an undertaking requires. On that note, work ethic seems to be a greater driving force here than productivity, which is in direct contrast to what I have seen at my own university and have heard about my European friends’ labs back home. While it has been drilled into me to work quickly and efficiently so that I can get as much work done in as little time as possible so that I can maximize both my results and my free time, here it seems like people work at a comfortable pace and don’t seem to get stressed out at all when working at that pace means that they will have to work longer hours. It seems like both approaches end in the same amount of working getting done, so perhaps personal preference is the only indicator as to which approach is better.

Looking back over this post so far, I now see that it is completely lacking in pictures (so intimidating!), so I believe that means it’s time to switch gears and write about my weekend adventures before I scare all of my readers away!

So let’s start with Miyajima.

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So. Gorgeous. However, instead of going into a long-winded description of how beautiful the island is, I will let my pictures speak for themselves and talk about the events of the day instead.

My friend Beppino and I had agreed on Thursday night, after attending our Chinese friend Hong Wei’s birthday party, that since we seemed to be the only two people on the entire campus who hadn’t yet gone to Miyajima, we needed to go as soon as possible. However, when I met Beppino at the bus stop Saturday morning at 8:30, I became a little nervous. Beppino mentioned that he hadn’t slept well the night before due to a terrible stomach ache and that the ache was still lingering that morning. But he appeared unfazed, so although I was unsure whether he ought to go traveling in his condition, I followed his lead and we went on our way to the train station that would take us to the Miyajima ferry.

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To my relief, Beppino declared that he felt much better after he got some breakfast, so we decided to take some time exploring the coast of the island followed by a hike up Mt. Misen, the holy mountain of the island.

Upon our arrival, we were immediately greeted by some very friendly wild deer,

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and although they seemed to have a penchant for getting in the way of my pictures,

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the day wouldn’t have been nearly as fun without their continual interference. On the coast were plenty of sites to see

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and shops to explore.

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There was also this spoon.

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We were finally able to drag ourselves away from the gigantic spoon, however, and became convinced that we were totally ready for a four hour hike up and down Mt. Misen.

In all honesty, the first three/fourths of the hike uphill weren’t bad at all! I was in a very talkative mood (surprise surprise) and had a lot of fun talking about my childhood in America and listening to Beppino talk about his childhood in Austria. Feeling energetic, we even decided to leave the path a few times for some side adventures, like making our way to the top of this waterfall.

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Conversation and fun side trips were rather lacking the last fourth of the uphill hike, though. I’m pretty sure the only thing I talked about was how much I loved water (which I had run out of) and Beppino’s stomach had started to hurt again. Yet whenever one of us would ask the other if they wanted to stop, the response was always, “Nah! I can tough it out!” So we toughed it out, accompanied by some “motivational”, obnoxiously optimistic “Wooh! I bet we’re almost there!”‘s on my part.

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See? Motivational!

You’ll be happy to hear that we did eventually make it to the top, and that it was well worth the hike up there. We found a temple containing the 1200 year old flame that was used to light the Hiroshima Peace Memorial flame

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as well as a place to buy water! Sitting, completely worn out, on the summit,

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our conversations became a bit loftier as we talked about freedom versus intimacy, love versus fear, and all of that other philosophical stuff that no one ever talks about when they’re well rested. A quotations war ensued, which was delightful fun, and I really got to know Beppino a lot better.

On the way down the mountain, we passed lots of smaller temples

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and managed to stumble upon Diasho-in, one of the most fantastic temple sites I’ve seen yet.

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Although I’m almost certain that I completely misinterpreted this, one of my favorite parts of the temple was this apparent stand off between the guardians.

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Probably both sets were protecting the temple together, but letting my mind run wild with stories was much more fun than accepting this probable truth. There were so many nooks and crannies to explore that I probably could have stayed twice as long,

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but Beppino and I were both feeling rather lightheaded, so we decided to return to the shore

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and then home.

Exhausted from the previous day, I was very thankful that I was able to sleep in on Sunday. There was a yukata festival happening on campus, but I wasn’t supposed to be meeting the girls I planned on getting dressed with until 1:00 PM.

Putting on the yukatas took much longer than I had expected. With only seven of us girls, it took two-and-a-half hours to get dressed. Yet again, though, the time spent was worth it! I felt like a princess with my multiple layers of clothing and styled hair,

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and everyone looked so pretty when we were done!

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The boys had it really easy though.

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On my right is Jochen, originally from Russia but a citizen of Germany. His jinbei took all of five minutes to put on. On my left is Will, wearing his “Peruvian” jinbei. Hmm…

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Yeah. They had it really easy.

Overall, though, the festival was super, duper fun. I made a fan with some of my friends,

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and got to watch one of the best one-hour dance shows that I’ve seen in my whole life. I’m a pretty harsh critic when it comes to dance, having been around the Ballet Memphis company for 8 years and having danced myself for 13 years, but these guys knocked my socks off.

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The night concluded in fireworks and I went home exhausted, again, but the physical exhaustion was accompanied by a state of mental rest. Monday morning I was able to attack my research with new found fervor and have continued to be really motivated this week, despite the fact that my increased effort was met by failure Monday afternoon. I am at a really critical point in my project, and if my current reaction doesn’t work, I am at a loss as to what I should do next. All prayers are much appreciated, for energy and optimism if not for success.

Until next time!

Craziness in Kyoto

When trying to describe what my trip to Kyoto was like, the first thing that comes to mind is Disney World – 928345729357 things to do but not enough time to do even a third of them. Because of this frustrating phenomenon, I have made the only logical decision one could make in my position. I have vowed to return! I don’t care if it’s in three week or twenty years – I WILL be returning to Kyoto!

My travel companions this week consisted of two girls and two boys – Fanny, Lorena, Stephan, and Beppino. Fanny is from the western part of France and is currently working on her master’s degree in theoretical chemistry. If you recall from one of my earlier posts, she is the first international student that I met on this trip and since then we have made an almost daily ritual of going to Mermaid Cafe at three o’ clock to talk about girly things and duke out our cultural differences…such as the fact that penguins are birds that live at the South Pole and cannot fly, not flying birds that live at the North Pole. Sorry France, but I’ve gotten Spain, Italy, and Honduras to back America up on that one. You may think that you have us Americans beat with your superior food quality, but you will NEVER beat us in animal classification!!!

Ahem.

Stephan is from Germany, also has his bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and is now working on his master’s degree in sustainable development. Beppino is in the same master’s program as Stephan, but has his bachelor’s in physics and is from Austria. Finally, Lorena is working on her economics degree at Hiroshima University. She is originally from Paraguay but has lived in both Wisconsin and Japan and is fluent in all three languages.

Our trip began when Fanny, Stephan, Beppino, and I (Lorena was supposed to meet up with us later) arrived at Saijo Station at 11:00 PM to take an all night bus we had priorly reserved to Kyoto. However, only minutes before the bus was supposed to arrive, we got a phone call stating that the bus was delayed and would actually be arriving around 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. Not wanting to pay the bus fare to return to the university, we decided to wait for the overnight bus and bum around Saijo for the next three to four hours. To my surprise, the delay turned out to be rather enjoyable as my travel mates and I really started to get to know each another – and each other’s cultures. Over the course of the weekend we basically hit every subject from religion to politics and everything in between, and Thursday night was no exception. A favorite recurring topic turned out to be the differences in pronunciation and root words in our languages. Fanny about died when she heard my pronunciation of “Notre Dame” in reference to the American university, Stephan about died when he heard my pronunciation of “orangutan”, and I about died when I learned about the German language’s lack of euphemisms. I was also interested to discover that “race” and “ethnicity” hold very different meanings in Germany and how the former is never used in polite society. Finally, I found it rather funny how intrigued Fanny, Stephan, and Beppino were by the Greek system at American universities. Apparently, there is no analogous system in Europe, so I had a lot of fun talking about rush, swap parties, and the like.

Returning back to my Thursday night, the overnight bus finally showed up and we arrived at Kyoto Station sometime between 8:00 and 9:00 AM the next morning. I found Kyoto Station to be very different from Tokyo Station, but really liked the aesthetic.

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We also stumbled upon some adorable school children taking a tour . . . and probably got a little overzealous in our picture taking of such an ordinary event.

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After taking a morning nap, we biked half an hour to Arashiyama, a small city filled with bamboo forests, temples, and gardens.

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Although it had begun drizzling at this point, we decided to risk staying outdoors a little longer and visited Tenryu-ji Temple. Not only were the temples and garden extremely peaceful,

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but it was equally fun people watching. There were a number of Japanese couples that had come to tour the temple in their traditional dress, and we took the liberty of taking pictures.

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After stopping to get a bite to eat at a little shop in Arashiyama (green tea ice cream for me!), we walked outside only to realize that it was pouring. I was a little nervous about biking back in the rain because, at this point in the trip, my biking skills were still sorely inadequate. Looking back, however, I can’t think of anything that helped my bike riding more than that ride in the rain. Because I was so focused on the rain itself, I barely thought about maneuvering and controlling my bike which actually made me a much better driver.

When we finally reached the hostel

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(hehe)

we took yet another nap before getting dressed and leaving for Gion.

Gion was so much fun. The district is known for Geishas (called Geikos in Kyoto) and Maikos (Geisha apprentices), and we got to see at least six on their way to evening engagements. Sadly, we were not allowed to take pictures because they were working, but hopefully the picture below attests to how much fun we had in the city.

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The next morning, after looking outside and seeing cute little boys in their baseball uniforms going to practice, I was inspired to go ahead, wake up, and explore one of the historic sites near by. Only a block away stood Nijo Castle, the perfect candidate for my morning adventure.

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It also happens to be one of the few castles in Kyoto in which you can actually take a tour of the inside, so I took advantage of the opportunity and stealthily joined an English speaking group that had already begun their tour. The most interesting tidbit I took from the tour was that some women actually had tremendous political power in the days of the shoguns. These women were in charge of the concubines, and, when those concubines bore children, it was these women who chose the next shogun. Also, the night before, my friends and I had been debating over the reason that the Geiko and Maiko’s faces were painted white. Luckily, my tour dispelled all mystery surrounding that question and I learned that important women’s faces were painted white merely so that they could be seen in the sparsely lit interiors of the castles and other buildings.

After returning to the hostel, everyone (minus Fanny, who was still asleep) regrouped and decided to make a quick stop at Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion.

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It was so enchanting, and I really liked the touristy atmosphere. After picking up Fanny, we decided to make our way to Sanjusangendo Hall, my favorite stop of the entire visit.

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The hall is dedicated to Kannon and contains 1000 human sized statues of Kannon, each with eleven heads and forty arms. In front stand statues of the guardians who protect Kannon, each meticulously carved from stone. At the end of the hall stands an incredibly large statue of Kannon, sculpted and covered in gold leaf in the 1200′s. Alas, for the third time this trip, we were not allowed to take pictures, but I don’t think that I will easily forget such an awe-inspiring site. If you ever come to Japan, you must go there.

But I have almost left out the most exciting part of the day! I originally had the wrong directions to Sanjusangendo Hall and we ended up at this place instead

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where a middle school-aged boy and girl asked to take a picture with me because I was from America. That’s not the exciting part though. On the way to this erroneously labeled building on Google Maps, we were stopped at an intersection and told by a policeman to get off of our bikes. Confused, we had Lorena ask the policeman why we were stopped and he announced that the emperor would be shortly driving through the streets on his way to a temple to pray. Naturally, we began freaking out and, a minute or so later when the emperor actually began making his way down the street, we began waving like crazy. The only non-Japanese people on the rather uncrowded street, we were definitely a sight and the emperor actually turned our way, waving at us and laughing a little.

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Although less exciting than the day before, our final excursion to Iwatayama Park was equally as delightful as its predecessor. Though biking through the city Friday and Saturday had been an excellent decision, showing us more of the city than we would have ever seen otherwise, we were a little tired of Google Maps telling us to bike through shopping malls and the like and opted to take the bus instead. The area itself was gorgeous and filled with culture,

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but we had heard that there was a monkey park located nearby, and who needs culture when there are monkeys?!

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Overall, Kyoto was a wonderful, freeing experience, and this blog post barely scratches the surface of all that was talked about and seen. The city quickly gained a special place in my heart, the memories built there even more so.

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Tokyo!

What a week it has been!

My last post mainly concerned the Tokasan Yukata Festival which was going on all last weekend in Hiroshima. However, a second, much lesser known festival – the Firefly Festival – was occurring simultaneously, far away from the hustle and bustle of the city in a little park outside of the Hiroshima Airport. A wonderful lady who does office work for our lab group invited me to go to the festival with her and her daughter on Sunday evening, and I gladly accepted. The festival ended up consisting of a live, sunset performance of traditional Japanese music followed by a meandering through the park to look at the many species of fireflies found there.

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Although the festival was enchanting, to say the least, I most enjoyed getting to know my host and her family. Upon setting foot in her car, I was greeted by an onslaught of Beatle’s music coming from the stereo, and when I inquired further I was intrigued to hear that it was the family’s favorite band and that their daughter had taken up the drums in the hopes of one day being able to play some classic rock. Good musical taste – and good taste in general – seems to be a common theme here in Japan. My friend from lab who drove me to the train station was jamming out to Queen in his car, and in Shibuya shops were blasting Daft Punk down the main streets and playing classic rock music in the ramen restaurants in the back alleys.
Going back to the family I went to the festival with, as we were getting to know one other, the mother asked me a rather general question that ended up really making me think.

The question, simply put, was “Why did you want to come to Japan?”

If you happened to read the very first entry of this blog, I mentioned there that my interest in Japan was spurred on by a thirst to learn about cultural differences and a desire to visit the place that anime was born. This answer, occurring to me after several minutes of thought when I was trying to think of a good introductory statement for my blog, was similar yet, at the same time, quite different from the answer that I came up with on the spot. I merely stated this second time that, when I was fourteen, I saw an anime called Death Note and liked it because it subtly showed a very interesting relationship between two very powerful people, best friends because of their similarities and worst enemies because of their ideals. As I continued watching anime I realized that this was a common theme and I wanted to experience the culture that obviously spent a lot of time thinking about this interesting subject. She smiled and replied that, yes, such a storyline was very Japanese.

After further thought on the subject, however, I noted some rather funny ironies in my answer and began to truly delve into the rather deep question of why I had wanted to travel to Japan in the first place. As an aside, I am going to briefly share my thoughts on the matter because I believe they have become this blog’s newly realized theme!

Our entire lives are driven by the desire to form relationships. Think about it. The second that you were a born and the umbilical cord connecting you and your mother was severed, you witnessed the detachment of yourself from the only other being you will ever truly be a part of. From that moment you began the quest around which the rest of life is centered: to perfectly connect with something to make you feel whole. For most of us, I think, that something ends up taking on multiple forms simultaneously. We try to perfectly connect with people, forming romances and building families. We try to perfectly connect with the forces of nature, either mentally trying to understand them through academics or physically embodying them by becoming exceedingly good at a hobby or activity. We try to perfectly connect with God. In the end, this desire to connect leads us to form cultures with the people around us that are trying to connect in the same way that we are. We then define our new culture by whatever chosen way that is. Ironically, though, by strictly defining ourselves and our cultures, we end up creating an almost insurmountable gorge between ourselves and those who have aligned themselves too strictly with other things, those who are a part of different cultures. So although life itself calls us to arrange our lives in a certain way so that we may more perfectly connect with one another, nature, and God, and although most of our sense of purpose in life is felt through this act of arranging, by flying the banner of what we have chosen to live by without showing even the most fleeting desire to change, we end up separating ourselves from those of other cultures. “I am already aware of the pros and cons of my own culture,” we say, “and it’s simply too exhausting looking at the pros and cons of another culture and trading out my own cons for their pros”. In the end, this little facet of human nature keeps us from truly connecting to anything.

How counterproductive!

I now realize that, by coming to Japan, I didn’t just want to come to the place where my favorite show was created: I wanted to be one of the two protagonists in my favorite show. I wanted to go to Japan with the purpose of connecting, yet all the while flying the flag of my probably-not-very-Japanese ideals in order that they might be bent and battered and rid of imperfections as through fire. Will the culture shock lead me to close myself off within an Americanized bubble, or will the desire to open myself up to truth and change prevail? That is what we shall see! And Hiroshima, a city set upon world peace, seems to be the perfect backdrop for my experiment!

And now, back to the week’s adventures.

Although I had many interesting conversations with Japanese and international students alike over the course of my week and (inevitably) experienced some rather crazy twists and turns in my research, my four-day trip to Tokyo still surpassed them all in terms of excitement. To give some background, my internship was originally set for Kitasato University in Sagamihara outside of Tokyo working with Dr. Yosuke Uchiyama. However when some complications arose and my internship was switched to Hiroshima University to work with Dr. Yohsuke Yamamoto, Dr. Uchiyama told me that he and his wife would be more than happy to have me visit Kitasato University and Tokyo during my stay in Japan. I, of course, gladly accepted his offer, and, with such an accommodating guide native to the city, I ended up having what I consider to be one of the best Tokyo experiences possible.

My trip started by traveling from Saijo to Hiroshima on a normal train and then from Hiroshima to Tokyo on the Shinkansen, the Japanese bullet train.

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Although it was breathtaking seeing half of the country fly by outside of the Shinkansen window – mountains, rice fields, traditional Japanese houses, colorful cities, the ocean – I was most affected by my first solo ride on the normal-speed train from Saijo to Hiroshima. Although I had ridden on this very same train many times before with friends to and from Hiroshima City, it had always been on the weekends in the late morning or early evening. This, however, was my first experience riding the train in the early morning, the time when boys and girls in uniform make their way to school, giggling over the events of the weekend, and business men with suits and ties read paperback books as they ride to work. Gazing around me, I remember the wondrous realization of the fact that I, the only foreigner on the train, by some miraculous chain of events had been given forty minutes to soak in this almost picturesque scene of everyday Japanese life. It almost felt like a fairy tale, the moment was so perfect.

Tokyo, however, was perfect in a different way altogether. After arriving in Tokyo Station

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and having a wonderful soba lunch in the Marunouchi Building,

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we stopped in Akihabara, a section of Tokyo filled with electronic stores, anime stores,

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and cosplayers.

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Although at this point I had barely met Dr. Uchiyama and his wife, we quickly began geeking out together over all the city had to offer and had a little too much fun finding knick-knacks in the different stores.

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Even though I was, predictably, drawn to the flashy anime stores, Dr. Uchiyama assured me that this was not the “real” Tokyo and took me to the back alleys to see some of the small shops that sold itsy-bitsy parts for building personalized electronics.

Because it was raining, we decided to go to Omotesando Hills in Harajuku, a beautiful piece of architecture that contained an upscale clothing mall.

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Though the scenes in Akihabara and Harajuku were quite different, they were both incredibly stylized and I thoroughly enjoyed them both.

Luckily on Friday the sun made an appearance once again and Dr. Uchiyama, accompanied by his graduate students, gave me a tour of Kitasato University!

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The tour itself was absolutely amazing. Dr. Uchiyama had somehow managed to convince about eight different lab groups to give presentations on their research and let me tour their labs, and by the end of the day I had seen everything from stem cell research involving the insertion of glow-in-the-dark genes from jellyfish into mice to cutting-edge Alzheimer’s, lung cancer, nitrene, and the-effects-of-radiation-on-humans research. At the end of the day, Dr. Uchiyama, his wife, his two graduate students and I went to a Meiji style restaurant that served pizza and pasta. The night concluded in the first goodbye of my trip as I bid farewell to two of my new friends. So sad…

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The sadness of the night before, however, was quickly overridden by the excitement of the next day! With Dr. Uchiyama and his wife expertly maneuvering the confusing Tokyo train/subway system, we navigated our way from Sagamihara to Shibuya, which is basically where all the hip Japanese young people hang out. Four of the most famous places there are the 109 building, which is basically a glorified shopping mall,

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Main Street,

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Shibuya crossing in which all of the traffic lights turn red at the same time and the intersection becomes flooded with people,

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and the Hachiko statue.

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The story of Hachiko is insanely sweet. For years, Hachiko had always run to the train station at a specific time to walk his owner home. One day, however, his owner suddenly died of brain hemorrhage while away. Though Hachiko ran to the train station that day, only to find his owner missing, he continued to run to the station everyday for nine years until his death, hoping to walk his master home once again.

Tokyo is famous for its ramen restaurants, so after eating a delicious, cold ramen dish in one of the side streets of Shibuya, we decided to take a tour of the NHK broadcasting station.

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Although I am decidedly familiar with Japanese anime, I really have no experience with Japanese television, so the museum was rather enlightening. Apparently, a lot of the most popular shows are dramatic retellings of ancient Japanese history, which is right up my alley! Yet again, traveling with Dr. Uchiyama and his wife was fantastic because as we watched the behind the scenes filming of these TV shows, the two of the them explained the true historical events that inspired them.

Itching to learn some more history at this point, I was thrilled when the three of us began to head towards Asakusa, famous for the Sensoji Temple. In addition to vendors selling traditional goods,

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the streets were lined with paintings depicting Japan’s ancient history.

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The temple grounds themselves were incredibly rich with culture, filled with not only Japanese sculptures

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but Indian ones as well.

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The most prominent sites to see were the two gates,

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tower,

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and temple.

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What truly made the Tokyo trip, though, was being able to look down on the city from the Skytree, the tallest tower in the world. The keyword in that last sentence is “tower”. I believe that Dubai holds claim to the world’s tallest building, but towers are defined differently…I think.

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All confusion about the Skytree’s height ranking aside, the view was breathtaking,

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especially as the streets began to light up.

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The Skytree was also nice because we were able to view from above all of the tourist attractions we hadn’t been able to make it to on foot.

On Sunday, we finally concluded our tour of Tokyo by visiting Ginza, famous for its kabuki theaters, traditional Japanese productions whose plots also focus on on ancient Japanese history.

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Dr. Uchiyama also said that, as opposed to Shibuya, Ginza is where “the old people” hang out.

On my way back to the Shinkansen, Dr. Uchiyama said something that took my mind back to the theme expressed earlier in this post. He told me that, even though the Japanese language is difficult for me and chopsticks are hard to use, and even though there is no way that I am going to master either of those things before I go home, it is definitely worth the effort to practice both everyday. For some reason, this brought my mind to the words of the first century A.D. apostle Paul:

“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.”

Although it is perfectly lawful for me to close myself off in an Americanized bubble, only speak in English because my Japanese embarrasses me, and only befriend Westerners because, due to the similarities of our first languages, we have more in common, it in no way helps me. In fact, it limits me. By forcing myself outside of my comfort zone and working to embrace the parts of Japanese culture that I have not grown up with yet can see the good and logic in, I am actually transforming into a truer version of myself. And, in all truth, it’s really turning out to be a fun lesson to learn.

Mitaki Temple and Tokasan Yukata Festival!

Although it has only been about a week since my last post, I cannot even describe how much more at home I feel now than I did then. I think this is mostly due to the fact that I have started spending a lot more time in the lab, and with all the laughing over failed experiments and celebration over newly discovered crystal structures, we have gotten ever so much closer. To my excitement, I finally got to start my research project which involves creating novel carbenes and complexing them to study their properties. There are three doctoral level students in the lab who are also working on carbenes and already they have taught me so much about the chemistry behind my project! The lab group I am in has somewhere around twenty-two graduate students over all, and I must say that I really enjoy having such a large community with whom I get to work and bounce off ideas. It’s like a big family and there are so many cool, interconnected projects all going on at the same time!
Another highlight of my week was getting to meet the international students. I had heard from someone in my lab that a girl named Fanny from France was interning at a neighboring lab just down the hall, and on Tuesday I finally got to meet her. We had banana smoothies at a wonderful little place called Mermaid Cafe and, after getting to know each other for a bit, she invited me to a party that night at a lake very near to my dormitory. There, sitting under the trees and playing songs on the ukulele, I got to meet some wonderful people from Finland, Germany, Austria, Mozambique, Colombia, and Italy. Throughout the week, I was introduced to even more international students, and I am now excited to say that, in addition to the aforementioned countries, I have gotten to meet people from China, Honduras, Peru, and Paraguay too! Everyone I have met has been absolutely delightful.
And now, onto my weekend adventures!
Although I don’t know if this technically counts as an adventure, on Friday night, two of my friends from the lab invited me to go to McDonald’s with them. It was a blast! I tried one of the specialty Japanese burgers and we ended up sitting around talking for an hour and a half.

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On Saturday, though, things got really exciting. At the Tuesday night party, my Austrian friend Beppino invited me to go with him and some others to the Tokasan Yukata festival Saturday. Because the festival didn’t really start until seven in the evening, I suggested that a group of us ride the train out to Mitaki Temple and take a hike up Mt. Mitaki in the afternoon. This was received well and so, Saturday at 11:15, Beppino came along with two bikes to pick me up and ride together to Saijo Station. Having not ridden a bike for the past five or six years, my first bike-riding attempts were rather amusing, but after I got the hang of it, the twenty minute bike ride to the station was incredibly fun! On the way to the station, however, one of our friends announced that he was stuck in a meeting and would be late, so we decided to take a little side trip to a second-hand entertainment store.

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So much manga!!!! Basically a little taste of heaven on earth…

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After that little excursion, we finally got on the train and were able to meet up with everyone at Hiroshima Station! Taking another train to Mitaki Station, we got out and began our hike up to the temple. Due to our inability to follow directions, however, we got a little sidetracked and ended up lost in a Buddhist cemetery for about fifteen minutes.

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We did eventually make it to Mitaki Temple, though! We rang the bell as we entered,

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perused the many Buddhist shrines dotting the entrance,

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and enjoyed the architecture.

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The hike itself was exhausting but well worth it. It took about an hour to ascend the mountain, and although I was out of breath the majority of the time, I was still able to appreciate the surrounding natural beauty.

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At the top of the mountain, we were able to see all of Hiroshima city from above and had a lot of fun trying to pick out the places we had already visited.

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The way down the mountain was tricky, although much faster than the way up, and my hiking team and I reached the bottom sweaty, but in good spirits.

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After getting a quick bite to eat, we met up with the rest of the crew to enjoy the Tokasan Yukata Festival! This is the first time during the year that the Japanese people can wear their traditional summer dresses, so people young and old had donned their yukata, as the dresses are called, and were wearing them all throughout the festival.

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The streets were lined with vendors selling interesting and tasty treats,

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people dancing to classical Japanese music, and exciting street performances including the taiko drums! We ended our night by walking down Chuo-Dori, the main street on which the Yukata part of the festival is celebrated, and going to the temple where the Tokasan part of the festival is held.

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I actually bought a yukata for myself

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and am hoping to wear it to a special Yukata Festival being held on campus in a few weeks!
Even though I got to do a lot of fun things this Saturday, the best part of my weekend, honestly, has been getting to converse with the Japanese people I work with and the international students I have met. Many of these conversations have been incredibly profound, especially for having so recently become friends, and I hope to get to know everyone even better. Japan is a wonderful place and, slowly, I feel it becoming a second home.